By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
This short note was written in response to an article by Alex Roy, in which he claims that the “settler population in the West Bank — some 420,000 citizens — comprises only 4% of the population of Israel. Yet their control of the political, diplomatic, and security discourse is much stronger than their percentage of the population, and their actions are much more destructive for the State of Israel.”
(This response is a work in progress.)
Those who oppose the settlers aren’t the 96 percent. For years within the Green Line a little percent tried to control everything. The vast majority of the “settlers” are like middle Israel, the Jewish residents of East Jerusalem for instance and Ma’ale Adumim. Of the 600,000 “settlers”, they are more than half. The smaller minority of ideological settlers is similar in some way to the reverse side of the coin of the 4 percent in Israel that sees Israel as a Denmark in the Middle East and is the elite inside the Green Line. And in a way these two constituencies, the elite of the settlement movement…and the elite of what was the kibbutz movement, are at war over which state this shall be. The other 90 percent do, in a sense, live within the state created by these two competing visions. And they are victims of it sometimes.
What Israel became has to be seen as a project of a small elite from the Second Aliyah that took control of Zionism in the 1920s. They formulated the map of Israel, they nationalized 93 percent of the land, put Arabs under curfew, settled different Jews from different areas in different ways. They wanted a “blank slate” to make the “new Jew” and they created a creature of their imagination. They sought to maintain dominance of the political system, similar in form to the power of one party rule in Mexico or Italy in the post-war period. For settlement plans inside the Green Line and relations with minorities they borrowed heavily from failed experiments in places like Algeria, South Africa or the US; and on social theories and eugenics of racist concepts that sought to “house” minority populations in places like Council Estates (in the UK), Banlieues (in France) and projects (in the US). Human engineering.
The religious-Zionist vision that became the tip of the spear of the settler movement wanted to expand beyond this kind of staid dictatorship of Labor Zionism. They wanted to spread rings and “redeem” their vision of the Jewish state. As Yossi Klein HaLevy wrote in his book about the paratroopers after 1967, these competing visions came from a small nepotistic elite, that all served in the same units and came sometimes from the same background. The settlers were new “pioneers” like the old ones, and the method of settlement in many ways mirrored the 1950s great expansion inside the Green Line.
Very quickly the old elite saw that the new pioneers were taking their state from them. If there was cheap housing over the Green Line then people couldn’t be controlled and kept in development-town prisons inside the line. So they began the kulturkampf against the settlement movement. Yitzhak Rabin called the settlers a “cancer.” It wasn’t their methods he disagreed with, in the 1990s he would be challenged for his views on beating Arabs, in a way a right wing extremist from Lahava might today. This was not a competition between Left and Right, it was between nationalist right and another piece of nationalist right that claimed “socialist” roots. Who would run Israel, which vision would prevail, the one that wanted little Israel that was entirely Jewish and spent most of its efforts suppressing Jewish minorities, or greater Israel, that had more Arabs with less rights? Would Israel be a small preserve, a kind of personal country for those families from Europe who came between 1900 and 1930 to enjoy the fruits of and live off, or would it be a more religious, Jewish experiment.
The Labor Zionist elite had long feared the “other” Israel of Jews from Arab countries. Some called them a “cancer”, others, like Yaakov Sarid, feared they would “storm” the schools and demand equality. The issue of Arab rights was never on the agenda. What was on the agenda was demographic concerns. The fear was that in the contest between two elites and two visions, that the second vision of the settlers would drown the country demographically. When you go to meetings of “left” groups in Israel, you hear how the recent spate of stabbing attacks is “the one state solution” and you hear “I want a Jewish state, not a binational state.” It’s about the Jewish majority, and about dominating that majority.
The religious right wants more land, more country, and demographics do not concern them. It’s a contest between, “I want a state without Arabs” and ‘I want a state without Arabs voting.”
For the average Israeli, who is Jewish or Arab, these two visions mean nothing. There is nothing in it for them. The same acceptance committees in the West Bank keep them out as at the kibbutzim in Israel. They can’t afford houses, but the wealthy people the competing visions can. So it’s not 96 percent against 4 percent. It is two groups of 2 percent trying to control the destiny of the 98 percent. In many cases poor Jews and Arabs have far more in common; both are relegated to second class status, both used to that others can maintain control. And that is what the 96 percent is. Those who were forced to move over the Green Line, not because of ideology, but economics. The economics of the occupation of the West Bank, are as important as the ideological reasons. It served as a pressure release for housing prices. Those are the hidden sides to this discussion.